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Master class

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Behind the front page

Professor Thomas Mulvoy (hands, with coffee, at right) with his "Advanced Journalism" class. By Lee Pellegrini

Professor Thomas Mulvoy (hands, with coffee, at right) with his "Advanced Journalism" class. By Lee Pellegrini

Thomas Mulvoy '64 was 23 years old when he joined the staff of the Boston Globe as a junior copy editor in 1966. He advanced, in succession, to overnight news editor, assistant sports editor, night news editor, assistant managing editor, deputy managing editor, and, in 1986, managing editor, third in command in the Globe newsroom. Mulvoy stayed in the managing editor's job until he retired in 2000, a period during which the Globe won Pulitzers for beat reporting and commentary.

Now, in addition to writing a weekly column for the paper, Mulvoy teaches "Advanced Journalism" at Boston College on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 7:00 P.M. His assignments reflect his experience: a news story, a profile, two or three other brief articles, plus a longer investigative journalism project written and edited by four-student teams. And his experience informs the way he marks up his students' work. Says Mulvoy, "I edit [their] copy the same as I would if I were sitting at my managing editor's desk at the Globe."

Jim O'Sullivan '03, now news editor of the Boston weekly Dorchester Reporter, took Mulvoy's class as a junior and likens it to taking "hitting lessons from Ted Williams." Assignments, O'Sullivan recalls, would come back "bloody as hell," covered with comments and proofreader's marks. "If a piece wasn't written with concise language and the full insight required, he wasn't going to let you off easy," says O'Sullivan. "Any hole in your grammar, in your facts, he'd find." That year, O'Sullivan co-wrote an investigative piece on how BC's communication department was coping with an unprecedented increase in majors. In spring 2004, students teamed up to probe topics including off-campus housing, student advising, the BC television station, diversity on campus, and the possible effects on BC athletics of joining a new athletic conference.

For all of Mulvoy's close work with a pen, he sees writing as a secondary element of the course. More important is the understanding that he wants undergraduates to gain of how a newspaper is put together—what the components are and ought to be, where they belong, and why. The centerpiece of most class sessions is what Mulvoy calls the news conference, a freewheeling postmortem of the day's newspapers. As managing editor at the Globe, he presided over similar exercises twice daily, at 11 A.M. and 3:30 P.M., as part of the planning for the next day's paper.

For most of each evening's class, Mulvoy sits behind a table, and the 17 students sit facing him in a semicircle, but for the news conference portion, Mulvoy spreads out the Globe (also on occasion the New York Times) section by section in the middle of the floor, and he and the students stand around it in an oblong. Sometimes Mulvoy starts with his own quick reaction to the contents and layout of page one, but soon he begins to toss out questions. If need be, he encourages conversation by reminding the class that they're not in any danger of giving a wrong answer. As he puts it, "In the news business, it's all judgment. There isn't any right or wrong." Before long, students open up, and the discussion takes off. Some adapt to the give and take more readily than others, Mulvoy says outside class one day, "but they all have something they want to chew over."


THIS PAST spring, the semester's first news conference comes the day after New Hampshire's Democratic primary election. Page one of the Globe has a six-column headline about Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's big win, and a large color photo of the candidate takes up much of the remaining space above the fold. Of five front-page stories, four involve the primary. The fifth reports on a shooting death from the night before; police have released few details so far, but the story raises speculation that road rage was involved. Alongside the story is a color map showing where the incident took place.

Mulvoy starts by asking how class members first learned of the primary results. The handful who answer cite the Internet or television. Newspapers, as Mulvoy points out often during the first two classes, long ago stopped being the main source of breaking news. Increasingly, he says, the papers give us other things—analysis, detail, entertainment.

The discussion moves on to specifics of the Globe's coverage. "If you read [the front page stories], they're all on the same theme," says Mulvoy. "Three of the stories are all about Kerry and what this does to his campaign."

"They have this huge banner headline," a student says in a critical tone. "What if [Kerry is] elected president? What will they do then?" Another student points out that the same quotation from Kerry's victory speech appears in two articles. Even granting that the primary took place in the Globe's backyard and that Kerry is from Boston, they seem to be saying, the Globe has overplayed the primary. Indeed, Mulvoy implied the same thing earlier, by asking how many in the class actually read all of the paper's coverage, which jumps from page one to the inside of the news section, where it takes up more than five additional pages. Yet now he turns around and reminds the class that the election returns came in just a few hours before the paper went to press. In an ideal world, newspapers would cover each event with focus and concision. But in the real world, the world where the Globe and other papers have to operate, you simply do your best. "You have all of four hours to put [the newspaper] together," Mulvoy says, "so you're never going to have time to strip out all the redundancies."

Later in the session, the class is leafing through the Globe's first section. On page eight, they find a story on the deaths of six U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Why isn't that on page one? Mulvoy asks.

One student surmises that, the war having dragged on through the summer and into winter, the deaths of American soldiers may no longer count as front-page news.

"Is that acceptable to everybody?" Mulvoy asks.

It's a good question, says another student, "especially when you're putting a local shooting on page one, where they had little information on what actually happened."

A third student, noting the Globe's liberal reputation, wonders whether putting combat deaths on page one, along with "the story of the primaries, where candidates are calling out Bush on the war," might simply look too partisan.

Mulvoy says, "My point is it ought to be there in some form." During the Vietnam War, he says, then Globe editor Thomas Winship insisted that deaths of U.S. troops always be mentioned on page one. "He said, 'I don't care what else happened in the news,'" recalls Mulvoy. "'I want people to know what happened in terms of American lives in Vietnam yesterday.'"


ENGLISH AND history major Jan Wolfe '06 decided to take "Advanced Journalism" after encountering Thomas Mulvoy in the offices of BC's student weekly newspaper, the Heights, where Wolfe is associate news editor and Mulvoy serves as an unofficial advisor. On first meeting Mulvoy, Wolfe recalls, "I told him which story I was working on. Instead of brushing it aside, he wanted to know who I was talking to and how I was going about putting together the article. . . . Even though I had never met him before, he wanted to talk journalism with me. I saw a real passion there."

Because the Heights had no official faculty advisor when he started teaching at BC in fall 2001, Mulvoy says, "I thought I could help out with . . . some organization of the paper and maybe some critiquing. I was very much welcome to come by and have done so with each succeeding editor-in-chief." Mulvoy says he's impressed with the Heights staffers' maturity. "Many of them put in 30 or 40 hours a week on the paper," he says. "They all cherish the independence they have, and as they go through a year or two of working for the editorial side of the paper, they learn how to report and analyze and take heat for what they are reporting."

Wolfe credits Mulvoy's course with increasing his respect for the challenges of putting out a daily newspaper. And students in the class say they appreciate Mulvoy's insistence that they join him in critiquing the work of the paper that he long served. "That sets a high bar," says Jeff LaBroad '06, a double major in communication and early childhood education. Mulvoy "isn't standing in front of the classroom and telling us what to think," LaBroad says. "He's telling us to think for ourselves."

David Reich


David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.

 

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